Saturday, August 29, 2020

Corporate Religion

Weirdly hilarious article by Nellie Bowles in the Times about consultants who advise corporate clients on how to make the workplace more spiritual.

In the beginning there was Covid-19, and the tribe of the white collars rent their garments, for their workdays were a formless void, and all their rituals were gone. New routines came to replace the old, but the routines were scattered, and there was chaos around how best to exit a Zoom, onboard an intern, end a workweek.

The adrift may yet find purpose, for a new corporate clergy has arisen to formalize the remote work life. They go by different names: ritual consultants, sacred designers, soul-centered advertisers. They have degrees from divinity schools. Their business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America.

In simpler times, divinity schools sent their graduates out to lead congregations or conduct academic research. Now there is a more office-bound calling: the spiritual consultant. Those who have chosen this path have founded agencies — some for-profit, some not — with similar-sounding names: Sacred Design Lab, Ritual Design Lab, Ritualist. They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design.

Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense. Having watched social justice get readily absorbed into corporate culture, they want to see if more American businesses are ready for faith.

This was my favorite part:

Evan Sharp, the co-founder of Pinterest, hired Sacred Design Lab to categorize all major religious practices and think of ways to apply them to the office. They made him a spreadsheet.

“We pulled together hundreds of practices from all these different religions and cultural practices and put them in a spreadsheet and just tried to categorize them by emotional state: which ones are relevant when you’re happy, which are relevant when you’re angry, and a couple other pieces of metadata,” Mr. Sharp said.

When he had the data, he said, he took a few days and read it all. “This sounds embarrassingly basic,” he said, “but it really reframed parts of religion for me.”

Just imagine this nerdy atheist CEO saying, "I need to get a better handle on this religion thing – can somebody make me a spreadsheet?" Sure, boss.

My serious response is that this is a sad result of the withering of all other forms of community. If your co-workers are the only group of people you associate with, then the only way you can have any sort of shared spiritual experience is with your co-workers. If I didn't play basketball I would regularly go for months during which the only time I was together with a group of other adults would be at work.

The second part of my serious response is that this is doomed to fail, because for me at least the competitive world of corporations is just profoundly unspiritual. Everything I can think of that might make my work more meaningful would cost money and take time and therefore make my group uncompetitive, and it's hard to feel spiritual about losing your job to someone who cuts more corners. One of my corporate employers went a kick for a while about "mindfulness," which I found bizarre, because for me the essence of mindfulness is in taking the time to do things in a satisfying way. For me that would mean more thorough research, more careful analysis, more collaborative work with other smart people, more time spent mentoring new people and generally sharing knowledge with others, and so on, and it would also mean passing on projects that didn't connect to my personal intellectual interests. All of which would mean a straight march to the unemployment line.


G. Verloren said...

The only religion that could POSSIBLY work in a corporate setting is the direct worshiping of Capitalism itself.

Give thanks to the almighty dollar! May your overhead be small, and your profit margins great! May the mighty Bull guide your path to riches, and protect you from the perfidious machinations of the dreaded Bear! Mammon be praised!

And now, let us all bow our heads in prayer, for the metric-analyst-recommended duration of ten to fifteen seconds (down from last quarter's twelve to twenty seconds), and recite the sacred mantra of wealth!

I pledge my body, heart, soul and mind to the service of the Invisible Hand, and the people who do business in her myriad markets!
I promise to keep the laws, to keep the faith, to keep my eyes on the prize!
I pledge to serve my colleagues, my customers, and The Company!
The Company teaches, guides, and provides!
The Company is mother, the Company is father!
We are the children of The Company!

David said...


The community aspect that you're talking about probably plays a role, but I would say there are many other factors at work, among them the shallowness of much contemporary American thinking about what constitutes human motive, or rather perhaps it is the shallowness of the motives provided by capitalism in general, combined with the desperation of modern business to maintain an absurdly high level of commitment and energy from its work force. They are floundering about, trying to find something that will motivate people who fundamentally don't care, certainly not passionately, about what they're doing, aren't that ambitious, aren't that deeply motivated by purely material rewards, resent being merely bossed or threatened, and aren't that psychologically beholden to the concepts of work as an ideal, a duty, a punishment for sin, a chance for self-discovery or self-expression, or anything else. I think management would be much less desperate if they were willing to accept a more humdrum notion of business as earning keep.

David said...

Actually, the more I think about it, it seems to me management is trying to create a sense of community and the kind of psychological involvement that goes with that, when it is precisely what doesn't exist among their workers, even if their workers spend most of their waking hours together. Those feelings don't exist because there isn't room for them, when the company also wants its employees to work, work, work, so the company can grow, grow, grow. Community feeling and real psychological rewards require not-obviously remunerative expenditures of time, capital, and energy that the company can't allow (as you indeed suggest). Medieval guilds spent lots of time on community spirit, but it often seems to me they also existed in part to prevent competition and growth.

G. Verloren said...


We could always ask the Europeans what they are doing that works.

...what's that? They're NOT obsessing with non-stop productivity, and actually foster real community among their workers largely by doing precisely what you mention, in addition to giving generous vacation time, sick leave, maternity / paternity leave, et cetera? And it apparently actually INCREASES worker productivity when your employees are healthy, happy, and not overworked?

Nahhh, that can't be right! Or even if it is right, it could never work in America! We can't do things they way they do in Europe, because we do things differently here! If we changed to the way they do things, we wouldn't be doing things our way, and at that point what are we even doing?

No, the solution is to drive the workers harder, whatever it takes! If we have to try to forcibly inject phony corporate religion into their workdays, then that's what we'll do! A sense of community among the workers is vital! Just so long as they don't go getting any crazy ideas like unionizing and working together as a group...

John said...

@G- European workers are not more productive than American workers, nor are they happier in their jobs, and they are only a little happier overall. They have the same problems with spiritual blankness that we have.

I would be happy to see the US become more like Denmark but let's not pretend Denmark is paradise.

G. Verloren said...


It arguably depends on where you are in Europe, I suppose, but there are definite outliers.

Norway, for example, has a 27 hour work week, but its workers are more than twice as productive as British and Israeli workers. They also consistently rate in top countries for happiness of citizens.

Now, maybe you're comparing overall levels of production, rather than efficiency of production, in which case, sure - there's not as much of a difference. But if a country can produce basically the same amount overall, but only require people to work a fraction of the time... why would you waste people's lives with senseless and needless toil and drudgery?

Americans work the longest hours of any industrialized nation, and yet our healthcare, per capita income, and quality of life are not likewise top of the list. We work harder and get less benefit out of it than all major comparable countries. We even beat out the infamously workaholic Japanese for hours worked, and still aren't anywhere near as healthy, happy, or secure in our own lives.